Russia and Iran After the NATO and Caspian Summits

Russia and Iran After the NATO and Caspian Summits
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Senior Expert Bilgehan Alagöz

While the majority of the global attention was on the NATO Summit in Madrid, another significant gathering was held. The sixth Summit of the Heads of State of the Caspian littoral states was held in Turkmenistan on June 29. The presidents who participated in the meeting included the President of Turkmenistan Serdar Berdimuhamedov, President of Kazakhstan Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, Russian President Vladimir Putin, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, and the President of Iran Ebrahim Raisi. The issue that marked the NATO Summit was undoubtedly the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the security problems that were triggered afterward. The significance of the Caspian Summit, on the other hand, was marked by being a useful opportunity where Putin aims to show that he is not helpless against the West, rather than the decisions taken at the meeting. In addition, considering the fact that another critical issue on the agenda of NATO was Iran's nuclear activities and that Iran and the USA started indirect talks in Qatar on June 28, the Iranian president's participation in the Caspian Summit intended to give the message to the international community that Iran is not alone. 

In this context, some statements in the 2022 NATO Strategic Concept, which emerged at the end of NATO's Madrid Summit, are important to understand what kind of axis the Caspian Summit symbolizes. NATO has prepared various documents to determine its strategy since its establishment and adopted its last "strategic concept" at the 2010 Lisbon Summit. When it put an emphasis on nuclear and conventional deterrence, Iran entered the agenda of NATO. In this context, it was decided to deploy an early warning radar system, which is an element of the missile defense system, in Malatya Kürecik, and the system was established by NATO in 2012. At that time, Iran seemed uncomfortable with this development. Therefore, it is possible to say that NATO has ceased to be an alliance focused on Europe and the Atlantic since 2010. This new line became even more obvious in NATO's 2022 Strategic Concept. In the text; Russia is named as the most important and direct threat to the security of the allies, and it was emphasized that Iran continues to develop its nuclear and missile programs.

It is significant that NATO has taken a strict stance against Russia through such harsh statements, with a bloc reminiscent of the Cold War Era. As a response to this new policy, Russia wanted to show through the Caspian Summit that it was determined to use its geopolitical advantages to the fullest. Russia wishes to transform the sanctions against itself, which trigger the global energy crisis, into an advantage and aims to increase its dialogue with the Caspian littoral states, which represent a crucial energy center. In this regard, Putin intensely put an emphasis on the importance of economic cooperation in the meeting. Moreover, he emphasized the International North-South Transport Corridor project, which was established between 2000-2002 under the leadership of Russia, Iran, and India, then included Armenia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Belarus, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Ukraine, and Bulgaria. The project is known as one of the biggest transportation projects in Eurasia and it is designed to facilitate the transport of goods from India to Finland by using the ports and railways of Iran. Thus, Russia has signaled that it will prioritize cooperation with all Caspian littoral countries, especially with Iran, in order to eliminate the impact of economic sanctions against itself. 

In this framework, it is necessary to remember the Convention on the Legal Status of the Caspian Sea, which was signed in 2018 by the countries bordering the Caspian Sea. The littoral countries, which had difficulties in reaching a consensus on the status of the Caspian and negotiated for more than 20 years, reached an agreement at the end of the Fifth Summit of the Heads of the Caspian States held in August 2018. The most striking issue in this Convention regarding the Caspian Sea, which will be given special status, was the prohibition of foreign military presence in the Caspian Sea, except for the five littoral countries. It was widely discussed at the time that this demand comes from Russia and Iran in particular and that they want to send a clear message to the USA, which wants to increase its influence in the region. Nevertheless, this Convention did not fully satisfy Iran even though it included such an important article. According to many Iranians, this Convention is similar to the Treaty of Turkmenchay, which was signed in 1828 and gave a large part of the Southern Caucasus to Russia, which formerly belonged to Iran. For this reason, although then-President Hassan Rouhani signed the Convention in 2018, the approval process in the Islamic Consultative Assembly has not been completed since then.

While increasing its influence in the Caucasus and Central Asia is strategically crucial for Russia in the face of the pressures from Europe and the USA, the fact that Iran still has not approved the Convention regarding the status of the Caspian Sea represents a potential problem for the relations of the two countries. Recently, the most important signal of this situation has been seen when Russia blocked the nuclear negotiations in Vienna in March. Russia, which has been subject to the sanctions of the USA and EU countries after the invasion of Ukraine, wanted to make Iran a kind of useful tool, and it requested the USA and the EU to ensure that the sanctions imposed against the occupation of Ukraine do not hinder its trade with Iran. Furthermore, Russia made an important request to Iran. It demanded the Iranian Islamic Consultative Assembly to approve the Convention on the Legal Status of the Caspian Sea, which was approved by Russia in 2019. Although Putin expected a statement from Raisi concerning the approval of the Convention in the Caspian Summit held on June 29, Raisi did not make any statements on the issue. However, the fact that the NATO Madrid Summit was heavily focused on the agenda of Russia and Iran prompted these two countries to take a common stance on many issues despite their differences of opinion on important issues. In this respect, the visit of Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov to Tehran on June 22 and his meeting with the Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian the next day are noteworthy. In the meeting, the following statements of Lavrov regarding Iran's full membership process to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), which started last year, are important: “We are convinced that Tehran will make a significant contribution to strengthening the Shanghai Cooperation Organization as one of the key centers of the emerging multipolar world order. A memorandum will be signed in Samarkand at the next SCO summit in September of this year, which will clearly outline the legal and time frames of this process, it should not take too much time.” Considering that the Caspian littoral states have close relations with China, the most important member of the SCO other than Russia, the fact that Lavrov brought Iran's SCO membership to the agenda in Tehran, where he went before the Caspian Summit, has a different meaning. While Russia wants to form a bloc against the threat of NATO and include the Caspian littoral states in this bloc, it also aims to limit the influence of China in the region. At this point, by emphasizing the acceleration of Iran’s SCO membership process, Russia wants to show to Iran and the Caspian littoral states that its decisions are more effective with compare to China.

Another critical issue that is worth mentioning in the context of the Caspian Summit is the increasing dialogue between Iran, Turkmenistan, and Azerbaijan. The natural gas agreement, that was signed between these three countries in November 2021, is quite significant. According to this agreement, Iran buys natural gas from Turkmenistan and gives the same amount of natural gas to Azerbaijan. Raisi and Berdimuhamedov held a bilateral meeting within the scope of the Caspian Summit on June 29, discussed the details of this agreement, and decided to increase its capacity. This situation shows that these three Caspian littoral states want to turn the situation into an advantage in the face of the global energy crisis and seize the opportunities for cooperation by leaving behind the issues of disagreement. Similarly, the relationship between Kazakhstan and Iran is getting closer. During his Iran visit on June 19, Tokayev signed nine memorandums of understanding with Raisi, which include cooperation on various issues. However, the focus of this meeting was Kazakhstan's desire to sell more oil to the world market through Iranian ports during the global energy crisis. 

Considering all these issues, the most important point to be made regarding the relations between Iran and Russia within the scope of the Caspian Summit is that these two states have essentially different perspectives concerning the status of the Caspian Sea, and the agendas of the two countries differ from one another when it comes to their relations with the littoral states. Nevertheless, the difficulties, that both two countries are experiencing in the international community, are forcing them to ignore this vital divergence. As long as Iran cannot achieve a concrete result in nuclear negotiations and remains under heavy pressure of economic sanctions, it has to maintain good relations with Russia. The fact that Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister and chief nuclear negotiator Ali Bagheri Kani went to Moscow to meet with his Russian counterpart on July 1, right after the interruption of indirect negotiations with the USA in Doha, is a sign which shows the dependence of Iran on Russia in the nuclear negotiation process. Likewise, maintaining its influence in the Middle East, the Caucasus, and Central Asia becomes even more strategic for Russia, which is the focal point of the NATO's Strategic Concept and is exposed to heavy sanctions by the USA and the EU. In this respect, keeping relations with Iran stable becomes the key issue for Russia. Within the framework of all these developments, it is possible to say that the Sixth Caspian Summit has been a suitable ground for both countries to show that they are resistant to the bloc formed on the NATO axis and that they are not alone.